Hello all! Another trek to Europe is under my belt, the combat boots of culture laced up tight and army green. I had a fabulous time in London, Prague, Vienna, and Rome, the two weeks of margarita pizzas and Pilser Urquells slipping away too quickly. Although my sneakers were ground to bits and my hair was unwantedly straight, I was content, exhilarated, and amazed—I was finally back in the continent that should’ve been my home. Snaking trails of water cut through the landscapes of the four cities, their populations living and dying by the banks. Here are the rivers I saw this summer, their rippling surfaces of foam green and gray the ancient backgrounds of my travels.
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your ears.” Ah! How Shakespeare was able to spin memorable words with a lift of the broken quill…Besides the four cities listed above, I also traveled to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the famous birthplace of the curly-bearded bard. Drizzling and gray outside, the town was warmed with a Renaissance charm and kitschy souvenir shops. Besides visiting his birth building, I flounced along the Avon River. A thin, meandering squiggle, the river was a deep, stirred-up green with periodical cruise boats and aggressive swans. Their beautiful coats and majestic beaks were false indicators of their deadly wings. The mist—clinging to my jacket but not quite biting—transformed the banks into a grotto, the paddle boaters mere elves and sprites within the silver gloom. To complete the painting, The Royal Shakespeare Theater lived on the water, its brick façade warbling “All the world’s a stage” and “Kill all the lawyers” to locals and tourists. There are multiple Avon Rivers in England, but this twisting tributary is called “Warwickshire Avon” or “Shakespeare’s Avon.” “Avon” derives from the Welsh word “afon” which means “river” (how clever).
Ditching the cutesiness of Stratford for the grit of London, my family and I trundled down the M40 to reach Walton-Upon-Thames. Just outside The Big Smoke, this enclave of London yuppies enjoys a quieter view of England’s longest river. Shops such as “Hannah Martin Flowers” and “The Weir” hugged the sidewalked bank (as did hundreds of swarming flies.) My cousin and I ambled throughout the 60-degree twilight, the Thames a lazy jewel and the sky a ripped up piece of gauze. Manor houses and humble boats lined the shore–the rich London suburbanites claiming their chunk of water. My eyes were half closed to avoid bugs and my hair was an unwashed mess, but peace leaked out of the water and into my body. According to M.P. John Burns, “The Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history.” Julius Caesar crossed the River in 54 B.C., naming it the Tamesis (“dark” in Celtic). 47 locks were built throughout the centuries for the easy passage of boats. It’s truly 215 miles of countless revolutions, regattas, and suicides.
Flying from London to Prague, I witnessed the imposing Vltava River (which also wins the award for most badass name). The Czech are natural patriots, so much so that the Vltava is locally known as the Czech National River. Prague tourism has cashed in on the ancient beauty of the Vltava, especially with the famous Charles’s Bridge and the whole Old Town (“Staré Město pražské”) in general. Despite the chain Trdelník shops (Czech pastries) and roasting heat, viewing the Vltava at night was stunning. The waters claimed my breath for a pretty 15 minutes, my body untouched by tourists but wholly concentrated on the 2.5-meter depth. This River is so beloved by the Czech that Bedřich Smetana, a Bohemian composer, wrote symphonic poems (Má vlast) about the winding waters. I ignored the peddlers and floor-hugging beggars–only the playful repartee of Smetana’s winds and serious outpouring of strings were repeating endlessly in my mind. Sorry USA, but the Star Spangled Banner is not 1/10th as beautiful as this Smetana masterpiece.
I adore the European rail system. It’s bizarre and unusual, but something about the Euro Rail pulls my thin lips into a rare smile. I took a cushy train from Prague to Vienna, a sprawling countryside of wheat and corn husks lingering outside the smudged windows. Strangely enough, it was evident when we crossed the border between Czech Republic and Austria—a subtle, atmospheric difference colored the skies a different blue, the grass a richer shade of green, and the lakes a more depthless blue. I didn’t see the Danube River, one of the most important rivers in all of Europe, until my second day. The Danube metro station, “Donau,” deposits riders on a bridge spanning both Danubes (the original and the new). Rain was bawling out of the black clouds and the train to Schonbrunn Palace had disappeared in a scream of smoke and electricity. But the Danube was under my feet (literally), the rivulets of a sloshy gray visible in the cement drain holes. Besides almost being run over by a biker, I enjoyed this birds eye view of unblemished water, no barges or tourist cruises aggravating the already angry liquid. The Danube was crucial to the Roman Empire and served as an Empire border/transportation route in the 100s-200s C.E. Today, it is the second largest river in Europe (the Volga River is the largest).
Anatole Broyard, an American writer famous in the 40s and 50s, said “Rome was a poem pressed into service as a city.” After returning to Rome a second time and witnessing again its sexy ruins, narrow streets that embrace the feet but kill the car, and relaxed culture that deifies carbs and wine, I couldn’t agree more. The obelisks are poetical, the ancient rubble is more beautiful than any modern building, and each sagging tile—wheezing under the soles of millions—deserves, if not pity, then at least respect. My love affair with Rome is five years strong, and I don’t intend to seduce another geographical lover soon (if ever). My hotel was five minutes away from Castel Sant’ Angelo’s perch on the slow moving Tiber. Barely glancing at the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, I flew to the Bridge of Angels, desperate for the muddy waters that looked beaten and whipped by the centuries. The Angels stand frozen on their plinths, a dusty cream in front of purplish, twilight skies and the mammoth Mausoleum. Superficially, the Tiber is ugly—its waters are buggy and a cream-of-mushroom brown, there’s hardly any pedestrians strolling along the bank, and the heat kills any vegetation. But to me, the Tiber is beautified by its ancient history and burning under the glances—warm alive and decaying dead—its endured. I could write novels about the Tiber, but here’s a few sweet deets: Romulus allegedly founded Rome upon the banks of the Tiber at Ostia in 753 B.C, executed criminals were usually thrown into the waters, and it was named after the Alban king Tiberis who drowned in the mid B.C.s.
“Sail away from the safe harbor”—Mark Twain